Can Oliver Luck help a new version of the XFL figure out what it stands for—and how it will succeed?
THE XFL'S initial initial means nothing. That's always been the case. A list of FAQs in the league's media guide from its first iteration, which collapsed after three months in 2001, reads: "The letters XFL are not an abbreviation. The name of the league IS NOT the Xtreme Football League." As the outfit prepares for a Feb. 8, 2020 debut, this fact remains true. The F and the L act to indicate a football league. But the X is a variable. It could signify anything.
"I don't know what our corporate response is," says the league's new commissioner, Oliver Luck, "but I like to think it stands for exceptional and exciting and excellent." He turns to the publicist seated next to him. "Is that O.K.? Can I say that?" She approves.
Luck, 59, asks this at the XFL's temporary offices in Stamford, Conn., a cubicle farm across the street from the headquarters of the XFL's sister company, WWE. He is the embodiment of establishment credentials: five-year NFL quarterback for the Houston Oilers; father of Andrew, the Colts' Pro Bowl QB; lawyer specializing in commercial litigation; high-level executive for NFL Europe, MLS and the NCAA. (A history major and finalist for a Rhodes scholarship at West Virginia, Luck recited a stanza from Robert Frost's "Provide, Provide" at the 1987 press conference announcing his retirement from the NFL.)
The original XFL was a boorish, irreverent spring league launched by WWE magnate Vince McMahon that flamed out spectacularly. Its raison d'être was to amplify (and capitalize on) football's powerful id: harder hits, fewer penalties, more-objectified cheerleaders. "This will not be a league for pantywaists or sissies," McMahon crowed. The first televised game, which aired as a lead-in to Saturday Night Live on Feb. 3, 2001, drew a curious audience of more than 50 million. But sloppy, uninspired play failed to sustain interest. After the title game that April, NBC pulled out and WWE eventually followed; each lost $35 million.
Luck held only vague memories of the XFL's first go-round when one of McMahon's associates contacted him last spring about heading 2.0. Serving at the time as an NCAA regulatory exec in Indianapolis, he spent two Saturdays at WWE HQ hearing McMahon's pitch for a revival in eight cities—Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, St. Louis, Seattle, Tampa and Washington were eventually selected. McMahon's pitch was bolstered by research showing that 70 million Americans identify as football fans. He touted WWE's relationships with Fox, ESPN and NBC Universal, as well as his willingness to invest up to $500 million. He just needed someone who knew football and could turn all that into a league.
Twice last year Luck led brainstorming sessions about league rules, weighing innovations ranging from the simple (a 30-second play clock, 10 seconds shorter than the NFL's) to the progressively practical (headsets in every helmet, so coaches can call plays directly) to the radical (refs being tipped off on play calls through earpieces, to better focus their attentions on relevant penalties). Almost certain to be adopted, however, are new formats for kickoffs and overtime. On kicks, the ball will be booted from a team's 15- or 20-yard line in order to prevent touchbacks; to cut down on the trauma of high-speed collisions, the rest of the kicking team will line up on the opponent's 35, five yards from the return team's blockers. For OT, teams will alternate offensive snaps from the opponent's five-yard line, scoring one point for each TD or forced turnover, in a rapid best-of-five format inspired by soccer penalty kicks. "We needed an overtime that's gonna be done quickly but that's [still] real football," says Luck.
The XFL had already tested its kickoff rule at a December scrimmage between two jucos in Mississippi. For that, Luck invited some NFL representatives, emblematic of how this XFL's relationship with the NFL is markedly different from 20 years ago, when McMahon positioned himself as an adversary. Luck is open about his love for the more established league. In December he even brokered a meeting at the NFL's Manhattan office, where he and McMahon outlined for Roger Goodell the XFL's intentions: innovate in the spring, don't compete with the big boys in the fall.
Given the salaries allowed by the XFL's $4 million-odd salary cap for its 52-man rosters—roughly $77,000 per player; the NFL rookie minimum is $495,000—the talent pool is what Luck calls "the best of the rest": undrafted rookies, young players a step too slow or a few inches too short for NFL standards. (The draft will most likely be held after NFL teams trim their 2019 rosters, on Labor Day weekend.) He cites his experience in NFL Europe, where as president he saw former NFL afterthoughts Kurt Warner, Brad Johnson and Jake Delhomme rejuvenate their careers with 10-game star turns before returning to start in Super Bowls.
This XFL will also be free of the original's garishness. Gone are the jersey nicknames—most famously HE HATE ME—the WWE crossovers, the cheerleaders. The ball is not likely to be defiantly black and red. Luck wants officials to adopt a high threshold for throwing most flags, to keep games in the 2½-hour range, but he still wants safety-related rules strictly enforced. It's a tight window to hit, upping football's speed without upping its danger. But Luck believes he can make that throw—and others—to avoid the fate of the AAF. "We want everybody to remember: We flopped the first time around," he says. "We gotta do it different."